A dormant but beautifully ominous volcano sets the mood for this compelling issue of Southern Humanities Review (SHR). From the Japanese art on the cover, to the final poem “Resurrection: Ivorybill,” by Ashley Mace Havird, an undertone of imminent eruption, and the realms that will be, are, or have been downstream from the event, pervades each piece. This is not to say that every piece is dark and looming; rather, whether fissures of perception, or pyroclastic flows of meaning and connection, this issue conveys that the effects of earth-shattering change are worthy of being felt, remembered, and revered.
SHR provides for the reader with eclectic tastes with its two essays, three short fictions, a plethora of predominantly lyric mixed with elegiac poetry, and three book reviews. Those who crave stinging images that tattoo themselves into your memory will find quivers-full here, but multiple pieces also address the complexities of loss, anticipations of love, and sapped or flushed litanies seeking understanding.
Neil Mathison’s “Volcano: A to Z” introduces as well as frames the issue and presents this issue’s strongest piece. Though the essay moves through diverse levels of connection, it seems to provide a volcano ethnography of sorts that weaves experiences, discoveries, metaphors, and growing ironies attached to living life in the shadow of Mt. Rainier. He writes, “We grew up under a volcano not thinking it a volcano. But it was. And still is.” He addresses how we develop “the technique of ignoring what we can’t do anything about.” Further, he shows how we flirt with, and paradoxically love and need, the angry mountains, like a god that asks for sacrifices, bequeathing gifts and a relationship nevertheless worth the price.
Among the fiction pieces, “Nevada” by Kate Krautkramer stands out as sample of an on-the-brink eruption in the life of a speech pathologist in love with a distant, long-time friend who cannot reciprocate her desires for union. The setting oppresses, in a mid-1900s, rural Nevada heat. Among several enthralling scenes, one opens a chasm of sadness in the protagonist as she seeks to persuade an autistic child to speak to his mother. “Ambrose would not speak to me, except to answer all of my questions with a question of his own […] ‘Can you count, Ambrose, with the lovely bare feet?’ ‘How do you do,’ Ambrose said.”
Two particular poems in this issue threw me into the wall, and both were written by the same author, R.T. Smith. “Watermark” paints a beautiful description of a woman’s struggle to rationalize her dressing up for the death of her father, taken by “the lupus wolf.” Her flowing prose, rhyme, and rhythm are intoxicating, as evidenced here: “A literary heroine dissolves to reveal the facts: a fatherless daddy’s girl in her best bodice-and-border shift, black heels – hound-dog face straining not to look bemused – and about her neck, smoldering like a fuse, those twenty-six bone-bright heirloom pearls.” Her other poem, “Conspiracy Theory,” lights a candle for the J.F. Kennedy past and the fears felt by those who loomed under the shadow of his loss.
At last, the SHR readers will find this issue cathartic but discomforting, in a good way. In addition, a key strength lies in how accessible its pages are to the literary layperson. In any case, read on, and let the heat of the volcano warm or terrify you.